Tuesday, December 28, 2010

Let the little children come to Me, and forbid them not.....

One of the most amazing things about our journey to the Eastern Church is the impact it has had on our children. It has become somewhat in vogue in Protestant churches of late to exclude or limit participation of children to varying degrees. It is, unfortunately, becoming more and more in vogue in more historic communions as well. Some (in our experience, few) still have the old-fashioned "cry room," where parents are encouraged to take their children if they are unruly for a short time, then return them to the service. Our current parish fits this mold, though the "cry room" is seldom used since most merely remove their children to the Narthex or the front porch for a short period before returning them to the Liturgy. Others have "children's sermonettes" that allow the children to have a portion of the service that is "just for them." Still others have a staffed nursery to allow parents to "drop off" their kids in lieu of having them in the service, if the kids are unruly or if the parents just want a break. And others, in our experience an increasingly alarming number, have "Children's Church" where the kids are excluded from the service entirely.

Now, it is not my wish to criticize those who engage in such practices for their intentions. I firmly believe that those who practice varying degrees of seclusion of children from the worship service have good intentions. Having said that, I believe that the use of the historic Divine Liturgy of the Church is the single best environment for raising children in the Christian Faith and eliminates or minimizes any concerns that may arise about having children present during the worship service.

First, the Liturgy is repetitive. That may seem "boring" to some in theory, but in practice it is anything but. For one, the readings and, for the most part, the hymnody change weekly (actually, daily, but that's another topic for another day). But the more interesting thing is that with the change of seasons, there is change of emphasis. And without going into the movement of the daily, weekly and yearly cycles of the Church year (yet another topic for another day), that change is well thought out and instructive. The repetitive nature of the Liturgy involves things that should be repetitive. Which is to say, the bulk of the Divine Liturgy is drawn directly from Holy Scripture and the Holy Tradition of the Church. How many times can one pray the Lord's Prayer, or say the Creed, or sing the Trisagion hymn or the Cherubic hymn, before one gets bored with them and needs to spice things up? To even ask the question is a fool's errand.

Second, the Liturgy is interactive. Put in a crass, materialistic sense, it gives children something to do. But it is not mere crass materialism at work here. Rather, the Liturgy teaches a proper Christian piety, a sense that what is going on is important and worthy of our attention and reverence. Because it is. Even the youngest child can have some level of participation in the Liturgy. All of our children are encouraged to make the sign of the cross, bow, orient themselves properly (i.e., toward the icon of the Theotokos, or the censer, or the priest or deacon), and so forth. They are encouraged to participate in veneration of icons and the Holy Cross. In the Eastern Church, they are blessed to participate in Holy Communion. This level of personal piety has the added benefit of maintaining a child's attention, helping them to behave properly. That is not to say our children are particularly well behaved in Church compared with others -- with three young ones, it is always a struggle to maintain proper behavior by all. But they are better behaved when they are engaged in the Liturgy than when they are not.

Third, the Liturgy has roots. Which is to say, the Liturgy gives children something concrete, unchanging and reliable. The Liturgy in primary use in the Orthodox Church has not materially changed in nearly two millennia, and one could argue has not changed significantly in the entire life of the New Testament Church. Children need structure, and there is no structure better than one which has withstood the test of time. The Liturgy provides them something in their life that is always there, always the same, always comfortable, always familiar. It is reassuring and gives a sense of solidity and security.

If you have noticed the benefits of the Liturgy to children I reference above are also benefits to adults, well, that's probably not a coincidence.

A good example of the practical effect of liturgical worship is our youngest daughter, pictured above. Emily has never "done Church" well. She is a very sweet child, but she is a free spirit, and in a quiet setting is typically loud, unruly, boisterous and bullheaded. And she is still all of those things. At our prior parish, we had an unhistoric form of liturgy (which is to say the liturgy was basically comprised of several portions of the prayer services and Common Service in the hymnal), but the settings were frequently changed and, more to the point, there was no sense of piety such as making the sign of the cross, and other than the Lord's Prayer and the Creed, there was little about the Divine Service in which Emily was expected to participate. While my wife and I still made the sign of the cross, bowed in appropriate places, etc., the example of the parish was a bit more "low church," to use an oft-repeated cliche. Lauren, who always made the sign of the cross before, fell out of the habit, and Abigail and Emily never acquired the habit in the first place. In the Orthodox Church, all three are now engaged and motivated. They want to go to Church, and they practice the piety of the Church. They still need to be reminded, but they are learning more and more where and why this reverence is shown.

When we first began attending the Orthodox Church, after maybe 2 or 3 visits, Stephanie and I were not yet comfortable with a lot of the local piety of the Eastern Church. In particular, we did not venerate icons, the Gospel book or the cross, and while we would make the sign of the cross at appropriate places, we were not particularly comfortable doing metanias, etc. But Emily always wanted to go venerate the cross at the end of the liturgy, so Khouria was kind enough to take her and Lauren and Abby for a blessing at communion and down the aisle to venerate the cross after the Liturgy. After the 2nd time Emily had done this, our priest was talking to us at a table in the parish hall, and as he leaned over the table, his pectoral cross was swinging back and forth. Emily loudly interrupted the conversation by yelling "ah, a cross!" and grabbing it and kissing it. She knew very little about the Christian faith in general apart from her "night night prayers" and the Lord's Prayer, and nearly nothing about the Orthodox Church, but she knew that cross was made to be venerated, and so she venerated it.

What message is being sent here, and what message is being received? What is taught to a 2 year old when she is given the opportunity to venerate icons, the cross, the Gospel? When she is taught to make the sign of the cross when the Name of God is spoken? When she is taught to pray -- even as young as two and a half -- "Holy God, Holy Mighty, Holy Immortal, have mercy on us?" When every week she has the Creed and the hymnody of the Church and the prayers of the Church hammered in her ears over and over and over? She is simply being taught the Christian Faith. That Jesus Christ is true God and true man, that He is one of the Holy Trinity, that He is immortal, that He will have mercy on us, that He has given us His Gospel to teach us His Faith, that He lives in His Saints and they in Him. And though she cannot articulate it, these things will stick with her throughout her life and when she is taught them in a more formal manner, she will understand them because she will have lived them for the bulk of her life. She will be able to point to the places in the Liturgy where the concepts she is being taught are lived out.

Conversely, what message is sent when children are excused from the service their parents attend? When they are given a "special" sermon that is "just for them?" When they are absented from the piety of the Church (or worse, when that piety is excluded from the Church entirely)? They are taught that the service is not for them. That the Christian Faith is something that will have to wait until they are older. That nothing particularly important (to them, at least) is going on here. And by the absence of basic piety, the things listed in the preceding paragraph that they are now not taught are possibly more significant than the things that are.

Exclude children from the Divine Liturgy, or alter or remove the Divine Liturgy from the Church entirely, and is it any wonder that when children grow up, they voluntarily absent themselves from something they have been clearly taught is not for them in the first place? But include them in the historic Divine Liturgy of the Church, teach them the Faith by having them live it out, and let them know from the earliest age that this Faith is for them -- as Saint Peter said, "the promise is for you and your children" -- and it is my firm belief that they will be more likely to remain in that Faith throughout their lives. They may not remember, and they may not even know why, but the lessons taught to them in the Liturgy will stick with them long after we forget how cute it was that time they kissed the priest's pectoral cross.

"Let the little children come to Me and forbid them not, for the kingdom of heaven belongs to such as these." May it ever be so.

Saturday, December 25, 2010

The Seal of the Gift of the Holy Spirit

Thanks to Joseph, Bridget, Rachel, Ruthie and Danna for sponsoring us.
What a blessed day!

Friday, December 17, 2010

The Divine Liturgy is Relevant

Call me a lawyer. My appellate practice professor in law school told me once that "every damn thing is argument," and so it is I title this post with a declaratory statement -- an argument -- rather than a question. The Divine Liturgy is relevant. It "meets people where they are." It is sufficient and appropriate to feed Christians Word and Sacrament.

What brings this topic to bear? I am still on a handful of Lutheran e-mail lists, and one of them currently has a quite interesting discussion going on now about worship practices. As is typical among Lutherans, the split is between those who want to maintain the historic liturgy, practice and confession of the Lutheran Church versus those who wish to introduce novel worship practices in order to "meet people where they are" and make the "worship experience" more "relevant." These statements are in quotes not to mock those who made them, but rather to highlight that these are direct quotes -- they are in fact the argument of those proposing novelty.

If I seem to be picking on Lutherans, rest assured that is not the case. For one, most Lutherans I know (i.e., those who might read this) will likely agree with what I say here. For another, while it is a Lutheran e-mail list under discussion, the mindset that says we have to introduce novelty in order to "meet people where they are" is, to be blunt, not Lutheran. To the contrary, it is anti-Lutheran, and I would argue further, outside the unified tradition of the Christian Church.

What struck me about these claims initially is that they epitomize the logical fallacy of question begging. They are not made as questions (hence, I will not respond to them as questions), but rather as assertions. "I am just trying to meet people where they are." "Why is it a problem to try to make the worship experience more relevant to our modern culture?" The question at issue -- whether the Divine Liturgy DOES in fact meet people where they are, and whether it IS in fact, relevant to our modern culture -- is assumed in the negative. The Divine Liturgy, claim the novelists, is not relevant, and does not meet people where they are. I reject both claims. A further assumption is made that the purpose of the Sunday morning worship service is to "meet people where they are" and to be "relevant" to modern culture. I reject this claim as well.

For 2000 years, the Holy Orthodox Church has used the same basic form of liturgy. Has it changed? In small measure, yes. And we, like many more modern liturgical traditions, have different settings. The main setting for the Divine Liturgy is the Liturgy of St. John Chrysostom, which dates back nearly 1700 years. On certain days, we will also celebrate the Liturgy of St. Basil or the Liturgy of St. James, the latter being the most ancient form currently in use. Western Rite Orthodox Churches celebrate the Liturgy of St. Gregory the Great. The Lutheran Common Service is a variation of the Liturgy of St. Gregory. All of these liturgies have commonality. They all can be divided into the Service of the Word and the Service of the Eucharist. They have basic elements in common. And the Christian Church has used this same base form of liturgy for 2000 years to feed the faithful. Are those who would introduce novelty into the Church seriously suggesting that what was presumably "effective" for 1900 years suddenly became "ineffective" in the late 20th and early 21st centuries?

In addition, the purpose of the Divine Liturgy on Sunday morning is not to be "seeker friendly," nor is it primarily to evangelize. The purpose of the Divine Liturgy is to feed. To comfort. To provide. To serve those in need of salvation. My participation in the Divine Liturgy is not to measure relevance, nor to be entertained, nor to convince friends and guests who may visit on Sunday Morning that the Christian faith is the One True Faith. Certainly, the Divine Liturgy may assist in those things, but that is not its purpose. My participation in the Divine Liturgy is to receive God's gifts and return thanks for those gifts. Put another way, it is the purpose of outreach and catechesis to explain the relevance of the Divine Liturgy, but it is not the purpose of the Divine Liturgy to do outreach.

The Church certainly has a mission to spread the Gospel. And this mission may well be overlooked among many Christians of all stripes. To the extent that is a problem, we ought to be about fixing it. But this mission is not predominately centered in the Sunday morning services of the Church nor in the various prayer services of the Church. The Church seeks unbelievers in the world, and invites them to the Church to receive the gifts of God. The means of distributing those gifts have not changed for 2000 years. They should not change now merely because we, in our modern sensibilities, think we have found a better way.

Monday, December 6, 2010

....Entering the Holy Catholic Church....

After much deliberation, soul searching, prayer, fasting, reading and study, my family and I will become members of the Orthodox Christian Church. This has been a long process, and certainly the "decision" (if it can even be called that) was not made today, or yesterday, or a month ago. Which is to say, this is an announcement of intent, but of an intent that has slowly formed and matured over the last six to seven months or so and which has been present for some time now to a varying (and increasing) degree. We are catechumens at present, and will be received into the Church by Holy Chrismation at the Nativity.

We have been attending St. Stephen Orthodox Church in Hiram, Georgia for the period referenced above. Our lives have been innumerably blessed by being among God's people at St. Stephens, but obviously, enriched lives are no basis for choosing a place of worship. One can make new friends and have good experiences in a heterodox tradition. And leaving old friends is not something lightly done, much less leaving a faith to which we swore ourselves at our confirmation and devoted nearly 10 years of our lives, and into which we baptized all three of our children. So what was it that made us leave?

Put simply, we left our (WELS) Lutheran parish because we became convinced that it, and with it American Lutheranism writ large, is not representative of the Church in her fullest sense. Not, mind you, that no semblance of the Church is ever present among Lutherans, nor among that parish -- we certainly rejoice in the Gospel and Sacraments we were fed there for nearly 5 years, and we rejoice even more for our time with her Pastor and parishioners, who also enriched our lives immeasurably. But as we witnessed continued and ongoing departures from the tradition of the Western Catholic Church (which the Lutheran Confessors sought to maintain rather than destroy), both among this parish and in Lutheranism writ large, we became convinced that the Lutheran tradition -- particularly in America -- has in large measure lost what it means to be the Church. Some are unfortunately throwing it away with both hands.

This is not to say that Lutherans in America are a homogeneous bunch. There are certainly degrees of striving to "be the Church" among Lutherans. Our first (LCMS) Lutheran parish still desires and works earnestly to maintain the doctrine and practice outlined in the Lutheran Confessions, and to maintain the catholicity of the Western Church. It is that desire and the authentic Christian Gospel and Sacramental life that flows from it, in fact, that made us want to be Lutherans to begin with. Authenticity in Christianity is something sorely missing in this country. But at the end of the day, our observation and experience teaches us that this parish is the exception rather than the rule. This is not to denigrate our last parish nor their doctrine and practice. Rather, it is to say that in our observation, our last Lutheran parish represents the rule among Lutherans. It is normative, so much so that out of 29 LCMS congregations and 10 WELS congregations in the metro Atlanta area, one cannot find even one Lutheran parish that closely squares with what we were taught at our first parish in either doctrine or practice, but one can easily find any number of congregations that teach and preach what we received in our last parish (unfortunately for the LCMS, all of those are other WELS congregations -- LCMS congregations in our area are too far gone to be realistically considered "Lutheran" in any real sense). So in the end, the lesson we learned over the last 5 years is we are not Lutheran as normatively defined among American Lutherans, and likely never were. We came to recognize this in observing departures from the Book of Concord and the unified tradition of the Holy Catholic Church among our own parish and Synod, which we enumerate, though not exhaustively, as follows:

- a weakened appreciation for and practice of individual confession and absolution
- a departure from the practice of celebrating the Eucharist weekly and on feast days (for example, my wife mourned that over 5 consecutive Easter Sundays at our last parish, we never celebrated the Eucharist once)
- use of an altered liturgy and too-frequent (though, to be fair, still probably infrequent) departure from the appointed lectionary
- use of individual disposable cups for the Eucharist which were thrown in the trash after reception
- a weakened view of the Office of the Ministry

I should note that none of these issues came about recently -- we knew most of these were issues when we joined the parish, and probably naively thought we could start with what we had and work toward greater Confessional soundness. I would further note none of this explains why we have decided to join the Orthodox Church. Being dissatisfied with Lutheranism is not a good reason to join another tradition. Initially, what drew us to Orthodoxy was honestly mere proximity -- the closest Church that we thought would maintain catholicity in a manner reasonably close to what we believed as Lutherans was St. Stephens. After attending a Great Vespers in the late Spring of this year, the familiarity of the traditional liturgy was comforting -- it was, in short, what we had been missing for 5 years. Over time, what we have seen in our months among the people of St. Stephens and what we have come to believe (or, rather, to recognize) is that she has a rightful claim to be the historic Church of the Apostles, the New Testament Church founded by Christ. We have therefore come to believe that the Orthodox Christian Church maintains the faith of the Apostles in the fullest, most authentic sense. We have also come to recognize in her teachings errors we held to as Lutherans as measured by the Book of Concord, among which include, again not exhaustively:

- a weakened understanding of the role and intercession of the departed Saints
- an amended and, we believe, wrongly altered Nicene Creed
- a weaker ecclesiology that damages the unity of the Church
- a fundamental confusion of person and nature in the doctrines of Original Sin and Justification
- a false dichotomy between faith and works

Having said that, I should also note that we have much to appreciate from our time as Lutherans and our study of the Book of Concord, again not exhaustively:

- a strong understanding of the Means of Grace and the sacramental life
- a strong appreciation for the Liturgy of the Church as the best manner to distribute those Means
- a strong appreciation for Church History and patristics
- a strong appreciation for the cycle of the Church year
- a strong appreciation for the Christian life, prayer, fasting and almsgiving
- a strong appreciation for the Scriptures rightly read in their historical context rather than "me and my Bible"

So while it is with sadness that we announce our departure from Lutheranism, it is not with animosity. We have certainly learned much in and loved much about our nearly 10 years in this fine tradition. At the end of the day, it is conscience that binds us, out of concern for the spiritual well-being of ourselves and our children. As Martin Luther famously noted, "to go against conscience is neither right nor safe." We do not leave angry or embittered, but certainly sad in that we leave many friends behind and have surely disappointed no small number of them. And yet it is with great anticipation and joy that we seek to enter the Holy Orthodox Church, for in the end, we are where we belong. We are home. There is much to be thankful for in that.

Your prayers are appreciated as we approach the date of our Chrismation.

Friday, December 3, 2010

From Lutheran to Orthodox in only Six Short Months

Well, sort of....(closer to eight by the time our Chrismation rolls around, if we're counting)....

I begin this blog to chronicle our journey from the Lutheran tradition to the Holy Orthodox Church. After much prayer and consideration, we made the decision to leave the Lutheran Church we had been attending, and we have spent the last six to seven months attending an Orthodox Church, struggling with the Faith and learning way more than we ever expected to learn about theology, anthropology, philosophy and history. We are now catechumens, and will be Chrismated soon. While this has been a six month journey, the full story is much longer than that, and will be outlined in greater detail in later posts.

At the outset, I wish to note that I do not intend to engage in a polemical defense of Orthodoxy versus Lutheranism, nor do I wish to in any way denigrate those who remain Lutheran, no small number of whom are among my closest friends. I will likely compose an initial explanation of why we made our decision to leave Lutheranism and, after that, to join the Orthodox Christian Church. That will, of necessity, involve some degree of polemics, statements of belief and confession of the Orthodox faith as contrasted with Lutheran theology. Even then, I hope to do so without any unnecessary offense being given. After that, I intend to speak more to issues that we have seen not only in Lutheranism, but in American Protestantism writ large, as well as our ongoing thoughts and experiences from within the Church.

Any and all comments are welcome on this blog, so long as they are respectful and polite. I look forward to sharing our journey with you.